Tom Beckett

Sheila E. Murphy
Interview

Tom Beckett: One of the things that most impresses me about you as a poet is your willingness to engage in collaborative writing projects. I think that the possibilities of innovative poetic collaboration have tended to be un- or under- explored by most contemporary writers but represent in sum one of the great frontiers before us. Would you speak to what collaborative processes / exchanges mean to you?

Sheila E. Murphy: Tom, I appreciate your response to this aspect of my work. Your use of the word "frontier" is an important one in many respects. First, there is a quality of the unknown that collaboration brings to the fore. As I write with someone, I never know in advance where the work will go. While this is true of my individual work, as well, I suspect that is even more so in the collaborative realm. Given my strong preference for the surprise end of the spectrum that ranges from expectation to surprise, I find the collaborative process energizing.

Collaboration also provides a way of relating to a particular mind / spirit / heart. The process itself is focused around making something together. Many good things come from the arrangement, including but not limited to conversation, discovery, friendship, illumination. One is part of a dedicated and highly focused mechanism that finds and shapes and processes.

I feel moved to acknowledge, also, that collaboration includes a kind of letting-go that may have wildly beautiful results. Alternatively, the results may be less than stellar. The important aspect, though, is probably learning that there is greater capacity involved in collaboration than in individual development or discovery of text, or additional artistic elements. (In addition to text-based collaboration, my collaborative ventures include performance work with the Celtic harpist Megha Morganfield and the visual art of Rupert Loydell.) When one has more than one’s mind / spirit / experience to work with and work from, greater things can be accomplished. The range of what is possible certainly expands.

One of the benefits of collaboration is the process of getting better at doing it. Different people with whom I’ve worked bring out different ways of working, different possibilities. Some individuals expand form, others draw out practices that are a joy to become a part of. Some write long, emotionally-charged passages. Some vibrate the humor quotient in me, and inspire like resonance. One enjoys this way of being with another person.

I generally try to respect the collaborative work as very separate from my own, not as a subset, certainly. It is something else entirely. There is learning, there is even a kind of cherishing of what is going on, what results, and the personal feelings and intellectual learning that comes with the process.

One more element to mention: I prefer spontaneity in the process over a more deliberate way of working. I allow myself that, try to sneak up on my subconscious by getting up early to respond before I’m fully awake and maybe restricting the flow.

By the way, Tom, it may be important, also, to consider collaboration outside of my own efforts in this realm. One needs to learn how to read it, and to transcend the immediate temptation many people have acknowledged: "Who wrote which part?" That is really not the point. The point of collaboration is co-creation, not slicing off the parts and attributing them.

TB: What contemporary poets do you draw the most inspiration from? And how do you approach the reading of a poem?

SEM: I’ll answer the second part of your question first. This may clarify any likely rationale for my drawing inspiration from particular writers. I approach a poem with complete trust in the writer’s intention and process. In other words, the writer has total credibility with me as I first experience what that individual or collaborative entity has done, is doing. I let myself engage in a process of understanding. One way to describe this might be that I look at and listen to what is there. I learn from that or feel from it. Ideally, there is no a priori checklist embedded in my head. At least I try to preclude such positioning.

I enjoy finding out what a writer is doing beautifully. In every writer, there is likely a unique factor or factors that distinguish his / her work from everyone else’s. That is the part that I most enjoy. Otherwise, reading would amount to being on the prowl for de facto ditto marks, which would be ludicrous.

That said, I have things that tend especially to delight me, based upon past experiences with reading writing. These include the sparkle quotient of vocabulary, rhythm, and attunement to sound, as well as the way that sound and concept fuse. I enjoy, am delighted by, in fact, a crystalline congruence of intellection and freshness. The selection of words reveals a great deal about a writer. In addition to that, the writer’s deftness in avoiding overuse of a given word is critical. It would be easy to envision one’s oeuvre as being, among other things, a printout of the words one had fallen in love with over the years.

A writer’s embedded intention in the work presents a delicious opportunity to learn from him or her when experiencing what is written. What is most thrilling about this is that none of us exactly knows this about our own work, or not literally at least. When I read work, I enjoy learning what the writer is selecting in the way of experiential carvings, sometimes treating the syllables as objects within a system. Here, the relationship of words and sounds to the other words and sounds creates a vibrant and dynamic field.

If I think of the work of the late Gerald Burns, I’m charmed by the level and scope of his familiarity with numerous texts. His ability to integrate these into his daily thought, as well as his work, was sterling. I miss Gerald and his ability to read. There really has been no one like him, and I defy anyone to imitate that work, that quality of attention.

Among the established innovators, Lyn Hejinian has consistently interested me for her integration of precision and surprise in language. From a personal standpoint, I have enjoyed equally the attitudinal perspective that is evident when she reads her work in public.

The work of Mary Rising Higgins (recently oclock from Potes and Poets Press) is brilliant, too, in its way of opening the possibilities for writing on the page and in sound, and in concept. I enjoy the work of Jeff Clark for the clarity and concentration evident in what occurs within a small space on the page. As I write this, I become increasingly aware of the many writers whose work has inspired me and continues to inspire. Peter Ganick’s No Soap Radio, in addition to numerous more recent texts, displays a commitment to intensity and passion brought to the practice of writing. The results are beautiful and thrilling to the ear seeking out conceptual stimulation.

Among my recent collaborations, I find that I have learned a great deal about the way certain writers create. Charles Alexander listens beautifully and responds with a clarity and generosity that is a joy to feel. David Baratier possesses outstanding wit and surprise that generates surprising elements in response. Lewis LaCook renews my faith in a kind of Whitmanesque longlined, joyous, carpe diem sort of writing that yields an elastic and empowering sense of life. Ivan Arguelles is a master of fluency, and I have gathered that there must always be poetry flowing through his exquisite mind. John Bennett and I have established a being that is beyond us both. His mind is so flexible and so capable in innovation. It is a terrific learning experience and a great release of intensity to work with him.

I have gained much from reading Bruce Andrews’ work, as I have from reading Carla Harryman’s. I read widely and all the time. Recently, while facilitating a weeklong series of writing workshops with Rupert Loydell (a fine poet and painter with whom I am currently collaborating on a project) for the Arvon Foundation in Devon, England, I rediscovered the work of Sarah Law. A book by her will soon appear from Bill Slaughter’s outstanding site Mudlark (www.unf.edu / mudlark). Sarah’s work is stimulating and illuminating.

Tom, I am certain that I have left out many writers whose work is important to me. Suffice it to say that we are wealthy with brilliance in innovative writing now. It is a lovely time to be alive.

TB: What, for you, constitutes the "social spaces" of writing?

SEM: There has been an interesting evolution associated with this term, based upon the broadening of access and linkages to people and ideas made possible by technology. Taking "social spaces" to denote gathering sites or constructs, I would say that this particular aspect of my writing life has shaped itself in a way that continues to be especially satisfying. The most enriching touchpoints for me have typically occurred in letters. Epistolary intimacy might be a term for this. I have established and grown in relationships that were communion-based in this way over the years. The Internet has facilitated increased spontaneity in note making, correspondence, and collaboration. I have always felt that communing in words constitutes more than it appears. Letters seem to be like training wheels for a more integral psychic joining with other beings that the act of writing may but does not necessarily distract from.

I know and love many writers in Arizona. Geography is only one of many aspects of joining, though. Perhaps communicating in writing, rather than about writing is what has always possessed the greatest intensity for me. Privacy is also a key component of my artistic life. I love communing and I love balancing that with my independence. I believe that Arizona is the perfect locale for me. There is not a recognizable scene here. Writers doing very different things know one another. I don’t feel responsible for embodying regression to the mean. Instead, we’re here in our normal categories, escaping ordinal and interval classifications, while enjoying the differences.

I attend readings, will be giving one tomorrow night at an art gallery in Scottsdale, focusing on my most recent full-length book from Potes and Poets Press, The Indelible Occasion. This reading will be shared with another local poet, Eva Jungermann. The group with whom we’ll share the reading will be composed of people representing a wide variety of places and aspects. Some are writers, some are good friends, some are both.

Whenever possible, I participate in POG (poetry group) programs in Tucson, two hours from here in Phoenix, where I have lived since 1976. That particular venue includes several like-minded individuals relative to writing. We typically offer programs that feature a writer and a visual artist. The experiences are magnificent. Charles Alexander, Tenney Nathanson, Dan Featherston, and a number of other writers guide this group. It’s wonderful.

To me, the online apparatus and concept contributes to the lively exchange and development of ideas and discoveries in writing. I actively write to a number of people. Recent correspondence includes new collaborations as well, with Sarah Rosenthal and Tom Taylor. Scott Thurston, whom I met at the Arvon Foundation in England, also adds welcome happiness to the online correspondence picture.

For 12 years, Bev Carver and I coordinated the Scottsdale Center for the Arts Poetry Series, working with Carolyn Robbins, now the Curator of Education for the new Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (an outgrowth of the same organization). Bev and I founded that Series, and continue to have great fondness for the experience. The Series afforded us the opportunity to bring several international writers such as Tom Raworth, Doug Barbour and Stephen Scobie, and others, to our stage. We also featured local, regional, and national writers. One of the most exciting aspects of our work there included a format involving our commissioning writers to create original works in response to visual art that was included in traveling exhibitions. On a given evening, anywhere from 5 to 12 writers would perform their pieces before the visual creations. The audience would move through the gallery with the series of writers, introduced in conjunction with the artist and the visual work. This presented another form of social occasion that widened the reach of the art being experienced.

The aforementioned workshop week at Arvon constituted another type of intensive community experience that I will continue to carry with me. In fact, I have a picture of the place on a postcard propped up in my office. Similarly, the Brisbane Writers Festival, where I performed last October, was a great gift, allowing me to get to know writers in Australia, as well as individuals who hailed from other countries, as well. The social construct was amazingly beautiful, and wonderfully organized, I might add!

TB: What does poetry do? What is its social utility?

SEM: At its best, poetry synthesizes, focuses, and shapes perception in a manner to create a new and unique entity. I suppose that answers a different question, "What can poetry do?" What poetry does is to release a channel of discovery and recognize the substance of a sphere of perception that has greater energy, a higher charge, and facilitates miracles ranging from small to large.

Some things that poetry has done include the creation of a socially recognized, if not always sanctioned, creation that facilitates a symbolic or emblematic sharing around a particular event or reality. If one considers what Allen Ginsberg’s Howl accomplished and continues to accomplish, it is clear that the locating function of poetry stands out. What intrigues me about this is that poetry acts to clarify what seems a hypothetical proposition. People at varying layers of awareness buy-in, and the vibrational sequence spirals upward, creating an increasing investment in a belief that what is proposed is true.

Looking at an entirely different kind of poetic sequence, The Canterbury Tales offers another type of sharing, one supposedly linked heavily with the narrative function. What occurs is that the sharing begins to gather momentum around the characterization that is being revealed, hypothesized, agreed upon, and escalating to increasingly greater heights of awareness. We agree upon certain things concerning the Wife of Bath. We find out what has happened, and then we infer things about her. We add to the store of what we know, as though we were citizens all living in a small town, learning about people to help ourselves survive.

Work of a quieter nature, such as My Life by Lyn Hejinian, allows for a different sharing. The communion exists on a more one-to-one level between what is given on the page and the individual experiencing it. A reader finds a self in the constructs that are given. Those constructs remain open enough not only to include the reader, but to transform with different or repeated readings.

I’d like to turn to a different aspect of what poetry does, specifically, the processing function. Poetry is a word that has fostered a containment of what I would consider an otherwise nameless (ironically) function of processing that many individuals in our culture possess. I would say, for example, that poetry defines me, in one sense, on the basis of how I think, how I process input, what preoccupies me. For example, I am presently reading books of statutes and administrative code as part of an organizational analysis that my consulting firm is performing. Last night I came upon the word contiguous, along with a legal definition of that word within the context given. I immediately chased down a notebook to allow several possibly poetic lines to flow forward, as the word contiguous began to entertain me with its many resonances. In like fashion, when I listen to financial radio (investing is my hobby), I allow the words used there to change. I know I’m one of many people in the poetry realm who enjoy this pursuit. In that same spirit, when I’m in a lecture hall, I simultaneously gather information on several levels, one of which is what the words used free me to discover on a level that differs dramatically from the literal one that pays for my time to be present.

It would be easy to answer your question by saying that poetry is absolutely a luxury item that possesses no practical utility. Equally, I could answer that poetry is beyond the reach of the most pressing concerns that this greed-driven culture has made itself about. But that would be too simple, and, in fact, inaccurate. Poetry occurs within a multi-dimensional spectrum that is equally capable of being ignored, of making one individual tingle with excitement, of inspiring thousands of people, of elevating consciousness, or of simply entertaining. There are good poems, splendiferous poems, plain poems, weak poems, and there are poets finding all of the above in their computers and their notebooks and their eardrums. Amusingly enough, the word refuses to leave us, in the best and worst of times. TV sitcoms will employ the words "pure poetry." They’ll euphemize (sorry, Edwin Newman) a person’s ability by calling her a poet.

TB: I think of poetry as "wild epistemology" (as a bundle of ways of asking fundamental questions about what and how one knows) exploring perception through form. You know?

SEM: Even more than ontology and axiology, epistemology seems to invite the wild. The categorical hue of its six-syllabled feast might mute the scintillating reality of this adventurous entity. I experience poetry as a kind of press pass (versus trespass) that allows me to luxuriate in anything toward which my mind, heart, breathing apparatus, gravitates. Every part of the writing process is epistemological in character. It opens, tests, examines, plays, lubricates the mechanical parts that process things, facts, feelings, while gathering observations, inducing perception, and spinning something that emerges, presumably as a result.

I infer from the phrase "wild epistemology" a celebratory aspect to the act of knowing, an active and fully charged experience and discovery of sensory information, a juxtaposition of person and event, a co-sensing of various events with other sensate beings. Poetry is a way of perceiving, and it is also a means of taking in and changing and being changed by what occurs within the pond of probability. Some little droplet seems arbitrarily to become the ingredient extracted from all possible truth and being. For the moment, a determination is made miraculously or at least mysteriously for that to be / seem real. One goes with it.

Despite my being a very focused individual, I firmly believe that I operate on a highly intuitive level and veritably float from one occasion to another, fueled, perhaps, by an increasing store of awareness that can only be derived from the wild epistemology that poetry indeed is. I like your term, and cannot help agreeing on this hypothesis you propose.

When you say "through form," I recall a way that I have spoken about the haibun, a form I’ve used rather prolifically since April, 1984. The haibun themselves have become containers that are ready to include what I find that belongs in them. Having that form exist a priori has allowed greater freedom than I could have imagined, had I pressed myself into the challenging of inventing a new outfit for each one.

TB: How does the body enter into writing for you?

SEM: In some instances, the body is inseparable from writing. I mean this both in terms of the act of tuning in to words, either via the medium of keyboard or of pen strokes. Then there is the more prominent question of subject matter: the substance of what one writes. A Clove of Gender (Stride Press, 1995) is for me a very physical book, even a sensual one. Pure Mental Breath (Gesture Press, 1994), on the other hand, is meditative, seeming to touch experience in the way flesh flicks onto a violin string and a spree of resonance lifts off into the sense of hearing. Everything is situated in the physical in some manner, even though I consider my way of processing life quite cerebral.

The part of life that is the body seems the simplest. It must be recognized, though, that the body is also a reservoir for what has occurred in the domain of the emotional and probably the intellect as well. The therapeutic process Jin shin operates on this principle: points of the body can be pressed to align the pulse into a unified beat. Lining up the pulses places the body in a state of greater health, improving the immune system, as well. In any case, writing is capable of situating what is deceptively simple and helping one to focus there.

I have been fortunate in that I have a very positive sense of what is physical. I have been blessed with having been treated respectfully throughout my life. This is a gift that makes many things possible. One notable way that this is true is that the body can be a relatively pure receiver of information and experience. To say that anyone is without pain would be untrue. I certainly am not. The key thing is that the body is a home that captures years of experience and sensation. As one reads it, a text changes, just as any item underneath a microscope...

Curiously enough, my current reading of Lawrence Lessig’s book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace fits this question. We live on the cusp of cyberspace and physical geography, with all its laws and architecture even intuitively factored into the arrangements that govern or at least organize our lives. For some years now, we have already coexisted in a realm that is principally uncharted in any parallel manner. As I read this book, I become increasingly and even palpably aware of how it is possible to choose to a greater degree to be in and of that new world, where one can define oneself in specific and maybe better ways, where it is possible to know people, learn things, even thrive differently.

The physical is a manifestation of something much more ironically real than what it would seem. How we address the symptoms of physicality, how we acquiesce to what purportedly exists, how we translate what we name in it, all become increasingly vivid issues in experience.

When it comes to physical poetry, poetry that engages principally via the body and its sensory capacities, I tend to prefer the subtle to the graphic and the obvious. It seems that the more a writer accepts true experience, the more s / he allows for and accepts that ever-shifting balance.

TB: To what degree does autobiography consciously figure in your writing?

SEM: Autobiography is one of many elements I have to work with. I neither consciously disallow it, nor do I pursue autobiographical detail with any favoritism.

What is most important to me is what happens with the autobiographical material, when it arrives. I believe that this characterizes a critical difference between at least two writing styles. Some writers appear to take the raw material and deliver it, relatively untreated, to the page. This interests me far less than some sort of interaction taking place with the material. For instance, I find great spark in the fusion of the juxtaposition of highly technical material and lyrical passages. Among other things, this offers richness of leveling and heuristic value.

It occurs to me that the definition of autobiographical material poses a challenge. Typically, one thinks of autobiography as the narration of something that happened in a person’s own life. I suppose that I consider items one perceives, items one is reading, and details from current events to be at least branches of autobiography.

Turning to the literal question you have asked, I believe that I am very much aware of when autobiography has entered the forefront of the poem I am discovering. I try to see what this material suggests, but often the material takes off without me, or ahead of me, and engages in that life of its own that I believe it has.

TB: I see your work as being driven by its lyricism, its musicality. I want to talk about this but don’t want the discussion to get too fuzzy. As you noted in your previous answer, the material tends to take off without you. Is this, at least in part, a function of sonic textures? If not, what do you think is going on?

SEM: Music has been the gate or filter through which much of my experience has passed. My perception has been guided by sound, perhaps as a result of formal training in music, and equally, given my predilection for the auditory sense.

You have used the words "driven by" with "lyricism". I have never thought of lyricism’s driving anything, but it may be possible. In fact, the more I think about this idea, the more I enjoy the observation that the quality of music or of singing acts as an impetus to engage the mind and the other senses. More than that, one perceives into the process of hearing, I think, perhaps placing thought in the context of sound, regardless of its initial form.

It may be important to observe here that the level of musicality or lyricism in work can be distracting. This reminds me of the long period in my life when I performed on the flute. My playing was full of life. People were drawn to it. Something about that whole scenario posed an issue for me at the time, although I doubt that I would let it bother me now. The issue seemed to be one of feeling that I’d merely entertained or dazzled someone with sound. I wanted to do other things, as well. The concerns I felt paralleled the ongoing topic of entertainment versus art. The former is just not enough, and in fact can be antithetical to art.

So lyricism can be an element to be dealt with. It’s not a simple thing to sound good and leave it at that. Nor would having a tin ear be an advantage. Sacrificing capacity rarely is! Ideally, intention and sound are integrated and both capture and create a texture that leads to other levels, new realizations.

If sound is treated in a laissez-faire manner, the result may be a shapeless entity. That said, I acknowledge the full possibility of that intention. If sound is overly crafted, one may risk contrivance. If sound is an integral part of the direction textual art is being, leading to an epistemological somewhere, then good. Sonority has momentum built into it, in most instances. Sonority carries. We speak of carrying a tune.

So I do believe that sonic textures do have their own being, one distinct from the progenitive function that lays claim to having spawned it. One cannot live apart from that. In considering sonic textures that I like, the element I most admire about them is their capacity to be more than they initially seem. Taking as an example the work of John Taggart, there seems a very striking, very pure quality in the sound work that he does. There are several things happening at different levels, many of them as elusive as a mathematics problem. Of course sound poetry itself, as in the work of Stephen Scobie and Douglas Barbour, stirs in the hearer a faculty for experiencing differently from textually.

TB: I think of the sound of my own poetry in almost geological terms — a kind of surface tension that maps as cracks and fissures. Your work, on the other hand, seems more involved with continuities — musical and otherwise. Is this a distinction that is meaningful to you?

SEM: This is a useful distinction that I believe holds. I will discuss continuities a little bit and try to get beneath what may be at work here. I am reminded right away of a few lines from the title poem of Falling in Love Falling in Love With You Syntax: "Once I went with sad geology / Who knew rocks not impurely / Talked of rocks touched the soul / That rocks may have / I drank a toast to new tall order / Meaning me I drank a toast / Got sloshed with him / And dreamed of you prolifically / Falling in love falling in love with you syntax."

The surface connection between these lines and what you’ve asked may be revealing. How one experiences the tangibles, how one configures those tangibles in writing, how writing supercedes the types of tangible elements in one’s experience, all become issues. Notice the proposition of seeking to lift the "other" away from the tangibles. Notice the resistance to the givens. Witness also the desire for peace, here represented by a liftoff. Eventually, language is what can change experience.

Both the dense and the sparse work that I create continually return to the concept of almost seamlessly perceived joinings. The issue of boundaries becomes important, because I believe it is essential not to confuse the idea of smooth movement across boundaries with no boundaries at all.

One ideal construct for me would involve being situated in a place and having in place multiple connections, powerful, magnetically charged linkages, thoroughly at work going back and forth and creating an increasingly intense level of communion. If one insists on an autobiographical connection, one might acknowledge that I began my life at three pounds eight ounces lying in an incubator, with a 50 / 50 chance of making it, with loved ones sending energy and light from distances. Now I love hotels and peace and quiet and loving and being loved from afar. I like the little cells. I trust in the power of linkages even, or especially, from distances, as those connections are deeply founded and uninfected by the distraction of appearances and mundane annoyances.

Returning to the sound. Yes, my work appears legato. Not slurred, I think. Staccato is infrequent, although sometimes appropriate. I generally am looking for the breath to continue being released into and circulated through the wind instrument while tonguing the distinctions between quarter tone and eighth note. That sort of thing. One isn’t getting a brittle stop. One is getting continuity, as it were. This relates, inevitably, I think to the construct and positioning from which one writes. All of this is principally unconscious, with analytical incisions coming a posteriori!

TB: "Eventually, language is what can change experience." I absolutely agree. Please speak to the relationship between language and change.

SEM: I feel moved to begin by adding that language is itself experience, and functions as a tangible entity for people who live inside it as I always have. The power that language has in other experience is profound, as well. We’ve all heard anecdotal sprints into the realm of magic reported about language. I’ll add another. A particular speaker I heard years ago related a story about preparing for a presentation that he was to deliver to a corporate group. He ventured to the beach to prepare his remarks, and positioned himself in maximum comfort to perform his task. The sunlight seemed generous, the waves were pounding and splashing open. Part of this individual’s work involved designing an exercise that involved words. He began to leaf through the dictionary he had brought with him to seek synonyms for something not favorable. Words such as "disappointment," and the like were the temporary focus of his attention. You know where I am headed here. The magnetic impact of his engaging with those words had a negative effect on his feelings, despite the virtually Edenic situation in which he had placed himself.

There are countless other homespun examples. I have a friend who has performed a sort of negative-ectomy on her language patterns. She utters the word "cancel" when she inadvertently slips into old habits of saying something self-deprecating. The concept behind doing this is beyond simple denial, I think. It is a matter of reframing how one programs oneself. A line I cannot accurately attribute comes to mind, "The best slave does not need to be beaten. She beats herself." Feeding oneself negative messages predictably delivers negative results.

Looking more directly now at the pursuit we are sharing, language can be seen as the raw material writers have to employ. In this view, language, open to alteration, is our row of notes. But that passive construct is deceptive, because language is also charged with its own vigor and surprise. Just when we might imagine that the syllables are still, we are thrown a lovely curve. Language lives in its way, elicits a power that cannot be anticipated perfectly. And thank goodness it cannot! That’s where the excitement comes in.

I like to think about points of divergence in different "schools" of thought, mainly to envision possible points of commonality that might reconcile differences (consistent with my smoothing impulse). One place where there seem to be very different ways of looking at language amounts to a matter of control over versus moving with language. The predictable descriptive / narrative verse that seems to win the majority of prizes and be the easiest to consume essentially plays upon a kind of cornball reverence that is placed upon the writer. A recent television special on poetry moved this way. Here, one plays up a pseudo sacred role of the poet and in fact leans a little heavily for my taste on pre-establishing a select set of elements as special. This approach generally lacks openness, and is just a bit too pat for my preferences. Here, language might be alleged to change experience, but in fact it only reinforces a narrow type of change that is de facto sanctioned in advance.

Another point of divergence that has been recognized is one associated with closure. The more one celebrates an open view of language as a change agent, the less one is eager to frame a work in any tidy way. This may sound ironic from someone who likes forms, but I mean here that any sort of preliminary decision making, even an unconscious act of same, is outside the spirit of what is most exciting in the sphere of language. It is fun to hear a writer say (and mean) that a work took him or her to a very unexpected place. The work that results seems to possess a greater sense of integration. One cannot adjust something in poetry with a gauge. One can set some boundaries and have a field day with what emerges, but the concept is to foster allowance.

Language is capable of facilitating change in the psyche. After reading some poems, I am certain that I will never perceive experience in the same way. Jack Gilbert’s poem "The Abnormal Is Not Courage" did that to me. Some of the most deceptively quiet Creeley poems like "Song" have effected the same. It is important to say immediately that not all of these changes are emotional. Therein lies another point of divergence that is raised by different thought systems. Not all change is emotional or intellectual strictly. Real change transcends both of those in ways I would never try to contain. Whether a text breaks open experience or seams it or finds a new language for it, change is probable with something well conceived, discovered, and crafted.

TB: I find the dichotomy you set up between "control over versus moving with language" to be problematic. To me, control of language is an illusion and moving with language is sort of ideologically suspect in-so-far as it seems to imply an uncritical acceptance of language as given. Can we delve into this and your "smoothing" impulse a little more?

SEM: Perhaps both ends of this artificial spectrum need to be dismissed in an effort to describe more accurately what may really be taking place. For me, language is experienced as a state of being. It has characteristics of place, characteristics of mood, a set of symbols that both change and stay the same. Language is less a filter or a vehicle than it is a way of living. The word language can be deceiving, mainly because it has prosaic elements that make it possible to define the concept in a utilitarian way. In fact, language is the ultimate fusion of anchor and flux. It can be so precise and so malleable at one time. And I recognize that these are not the polar ends of one semantic differential construct.

You’re right. One does not control language. Neither does one go limp beside it and mindlessly allow. One stays at that line that is neither and both. In some mysterious way, language is a muscle unlike any other, as it does not belong, is not possessed, in any sense of the word. As I write / speak, I am listening to every word I say, recognizing a sometimes not too thin irony about the messages that are given off.

Here is another beginning. Language allows everything to be possible in thought. Thought is language. I think that wrestling too much with language as a thing to move around or a force to press us into service gets too mucky. The truth I feel is that there is a sphere of learning that language brings forth. Equally, that is a sphere of experiencing, of being surprised, of being lulled into a condition that accepts different flux and different truth.

That said, there is a tangible quality to language that offers a rich store of what seems like givens. When we hear, we gather. When we read, we gather. Language functions as a commodity in our culture, although not completely so. Language is also a way of differentiating cultures through segregated commonalities. It has porous and filmy qualities.

In textual art, there are infinite ways of treating and experiencing language. This ranges at the very least from silken to sharp staccato. Just as statistical science tells us, there is a phenomenon whereby preference is shown for certain kinds of syllabic and word use. Creators hover there. But the possibilities are really limitless.

TB: What senses of "limit" do you bring to writing?

SEM: I rarely think of limits, at least not in the literal sense of the word, but I like the idea of boundaries, which ironically contribute fuel to my work. I associate limits with deficiencies, even while recognizing that this is really not the case literally. The idea of boundaries feels more workable to me. Limits feel externally imposed in some way, while boundaries seem hinged to something I’ve agreed upon. That said, I often select a set of boundaries in the hope that they will nourish what may emerge when I decide to write.

One of the most creative aspects of writing involves the selection of boundaries. This may be a highly conscious process, or something that occurs apparently by accident. Whatever the case, the design of a frame is a preliminary step that shapes what the work might be able to become. The more I think of this, the more probable it seems that this first act is really the first part of writing. If I pretend that the initial step is not earth-shatteringly important, or even talk myself into thinking this is wholly (pun intended) accidental, then I may further relax into what I consider a perfect way to write. By that I mean that the boundaries help shape something whose time has come to emerge through me in my role as facilitator.

I recognize that some writers address form very differently from the way I do. Some people appear to let form follow content. I don’t disagree with this approach. It’s just that (for me) it tends to yield less, in both senses of the word. I often select a form to fill, and enjoy seeing how it is filled. Better yet, I appreciate how the boundaries are challenged by an emergent work.

As you can see, I’ve taken the question about limits, turned to boundaries, and have emphasized form. I think that your question also invites another issue, that of other artistic genres. Having been heavily identified as a musician during all of my early life, I brought to writing some of the capabilities that music gave me. That is probably as much a result of my genetic musical inclination (manifest, curiously enough, equally from the nonmusical but sound-obsessed paternal side of the family as from the distinctly musical maternal side) as of my musical pursuits. Beginning early in 1999, I invited a visual medium into my practice. Some new works combine text and painting or text and drawing. Some works are purely drawings or paintings. As I work in the visual medium, I discover how much desire I have held for that world.

To your question, I recognize some of the limits (there, I’ve said it!) of different media. For writing, this may be one involving economy. We in writing are less capable of economy, I think, than some visual artists are. So with musicians. They accomplish differently, deleting text in instrumental pieces. Despite these considerations, I fundamentally trust language. Accordingly, I maintain a skepticism, healthy or unhealthy, toward non-language-based elements.

TB: What kinds of procedures do you utilize when writing?

SEM: I’ll begin by talking about procedures I have used or am using now, recognizing that this is likely to change over time. For me, procedures may be integrally tied to the poem’s being, rather than a bridge that carries me to it. By their very nature, procedures delimit as they draw into the field of the poem particular elements. They are deeper, then, than mechanics of making. In fact, the core intention, itself, is a kind of field. Thinking about procedures reinforces that perception.

With vocabulary’s being important to my work, I’m often interested in finding ways to generate a vital word choice. This may involve something so simple as selecting one or more sources and then drawing words from those sources, either randomly or by in a pattern. The procedure might involve placing myself physically where I can hear something I don’t normally hear and draw from it. I might consciously decide to allow a text to do something I haven’t done before. I might simply let my fingers or hand go, keyboard or notebook, and work away until I’m finding a rhythm that reveals what the poem wants to do and be.

I typically exist in an alpha state wherein I float around, ironically performing all sorts of beta tasks that I perform intuitively. This allows for the mixing of elements, experience, style, and so forth. I sometimes hear a kind of ticker tape running in my head, and if I simply grab the nearest pencil, all the text awaits me. There is so much of it I cannot hope to catch it all. This mostly happens when I’ve achieved a certain level of vibration in the aforementioned relaxed state.

Procedures have choice in them. I sometimes suspect that what will be best for writing is to get on the keyboard and create some pieces. I listen to them occur to me. I look at them on the screen. I think about their sound again. I move syllables, I add punctuation.

Some other new pieces began on small cold-pressed cards with beautifully torn edges. I had been doing drawings on similar cards. Then, I thought of writing words on them. These original thought marks moved to the computer. For a few moments, it was as though they had been made on the computer. These started upstairs, when I was propped in bed.

I have used newly created forms to measure new work, both as a way of creating momentum and as a way of removing the bother of co-inventing shape and content when writing pieces. Teth does this, with each of 81 pages having 81 words of text. The shapes are centered on the page, but differ in the distribution and patterning of words. Tommy and Neil, a book in two parts, dedicated to each brother on his 36th birthday, is crafted based upon a particular format. Tommy has on each of 36 pages three separate word groupings, of 54, 13 and 6 words each, commemorating his birth on 6 / 13 / 54. Letters to Neil is simply 36 prose poem passages. Obeli: 21 Contemplations is simply 21 poems, 21 lines each, 7 words per line.

These, of course are rule-based, rules that I created. Teth was centered on the numerical meaning of nine, and teth is the ninth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The Tommy poems clearly relate to their structure, as well.

Let’s look at this a bit more closely. Among the procedures I have used are mathematical conceptual translations, music theory, taking 12-tone patterns in verse, and philosophical concepts as a launching place. I have worked a good deal with visual art, responding to it, designing systems that draw from its own sources. I have used homophonic translation, sometimes in collaborative passages, as with Charles Alexander in Prayer, Rupture, Dwelling, our book-length poem.

I write by hand, I write onscreen, I speak into a dictating recorder while driving (only occasionally). I write during seminars or lectures or even meetings, mixing in language of the occasion with language I might otherwise like to include.

In general, I love the writing process. It is more natural to me than anything else, although I have a great fondness for other art forms. I feel fortunate to have this process in my life, that is, in fact, my life.

TB: Let’s circle back to where we began: collaborations. What is the importance to you of procedures when working with another person? Maybe you could take me through a blow-by-blow of one of your creative exchanges in order to get a sense of what the working process is like for you.

SEM: Procedures can be useful tools for focusing a project. When working collaboratively, it is often valuable to agree upon a way of being open to discoveries, or even of reaching for them. I must add that procedures may be prominent, fixed, relaxed, or almost nonexistent except insofar as to say that some kind of volley is going on. Every collaborative project is unique in its teaching, its pleasure, its excitement, its discovery. I’ve had the privilege of working with different poets who either were friends to begin with or who became friends during the process of collaborating. It’s a joy to engage this way, as I believe the process brings out elements of each person that might have been in a suspend mode without the practice.

Charles Alexander and I created a book-length (roughly 100-page) poem called Prayer, Rupture, Dwelling. I select this piece to talk about because we did set some procedures, and we moved along at a very pleasurable pace, over a period that exceeded a year, I believe. The poem was created online, back and forth from our email addresses, spanning Tucson (where Charles lives) and Phoenix (my home). We began with a small kernel of lined work, and made the decision to pattern our collaboration as a pair of offerings from each person: a lined section, followed by a prose section. Therefore, one would receive a prose section and a lined section and response with a prose section followed by another lined section. Practices such as homophonic translation, word repetition, pattern mirroring, association, and just plain free form occur throughout the piece. Daily experience emerges vividly throughout the piece.

I found myself looking forward to what would emerge. There were conversational elements, as well as discoveries, occurring. The poem was and is an entity unto itself. There are very lyrical passages. There are passages that question, reminisce, declare, even. I like hearing from Charles in this way. I might mention that he is a gifted listener. He hears underneath and beyond apparent text. I found this not only interesting, but very pleasurable and rewarding.

We would sometimes go in bursts, such that sections were being born and bringing on other sections. Then there would be rests, occasioned by any number of factors in our lives, combined with the need for quiet. A collaboration is so much like a musical composition in that way, except that the music comes after the writing, rather than before.



Sheila E. Murphy Publications

POETRY

Books:

Falling in Love Falling in Love with You Syntax: Selected and New Poems (Potes & Poets Press, 1997)
A Clove of Gender (Stride Press, 1995)
Pure Mental Breath (Gesture Press, 1994)
Tommy and Neil (Sun/Gemini Press, 1993)
Teth (Chax Press, 1991)
Sad Isn't the Color of the Dream (Stride Press, 1991)
With House Silence (Stride Press, 1987)

Chapbooks:

Temperature As Art (Instress, 1998)
Many Wishbones
(Maquette Press, 1998)
Leaflets (Instress, 1998)
A Little Syncopy (Marshall Creek Press, 1996)
Since We Last Met (Raunchland Publications, 1996)
Virgule (Burning Llama Press, 1995)
Wind Topography (Standing Stones, 1992)
Thoughtsongs (Tin Wreath Press, 1992)
Literal Ponds (Potes & Poets Press, 1992)
The Dessert Cart of Synechdoche (Trombone Press, 1992)
18/81 (Gesture Press, 1991)
Criteria for Being Touched (Experimental Press, 1991)
A Rich Timetable and Appendices (Luna Bisonte Prods, 1991)
Obeli: 21 Contemplations (Pygmy Forest Press, 1990)
Lens Rolled in a Heart (with John M. Bennett) (Etymon Press, 1991)
Loss Prevention Photograph, Some Pencils and a Memory Elastic (Tape Books, 1988)
The Truth Right Now (Bakhtin's Wife Publications, 1988)
This Stem Much Stronger than Your Spine (M.A.F. Press, 1987)
Memory Transposed into the Key of C (Mockersatz Press, 1986)
Appropriate Behavior (Abbey Press, 1986)
Late Summer (Pierian Press, 1986)
Virtuoso Bird (Brushfire Press, 1981)

Writing on the Web:


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